Application season will soon be upon us, and graduating high school seniors across the country will be in the thick of deciding where to apply to college. Unfortunately, after they are accepted and enrolled, many won’t go on to earn a degree -- especially if they are black or Latino. According to the Digest of Educational Statistics, only about 41 percent of black and 52 percent of Latino students obtain their bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling, compared to 61 percent of white and 69 percent of Asian students.
I have spent the past three years tracking more than 500 black and Latino students across their first three years of college to better understand the factors that could increase their likelihood of degree attainment. Over the course of this work, one question kept coming to mind: How did so many of them arrive on a campus having thought so little about why go to college -- and why that college in particular?
The answer came from understanding how their high schools failed them in the college application process. Most received what I now call mechanical advising: maximum logistical assistance but minimal decision-making support.
For example: Claudia is both a first-generation American, born to parents who immigrated as teenagers, and a first-generation college student. She relied on her high school for everything concerning applying to college. Although she was an excellent student, graduating fourth in her class of more than 800 students, it was not until senior year that she received guidance on applying to college. Even then, most of that guidance came in the form of schoolwide announcements and application support for the entire class.
Claudia credits her senior year AP English Literature teacher with getting her into college: “If it wasn’t for [her] I probably wouldn’t even have applied or known how to apply. She was a big role in how I did everything, because one of the assignments was actually to apply to colleges. Every step of the way was an assignment, so I did it all.”
Mechanical advising is designed to make sure increasing numbers of high school graduates enroll somewhere, anywhere. Claudia recalls: “They said, ‘Go to college.’ They always announced on the megaphone for morning announcements. They would tell you deadlines, ‘apply, apply, apply.’”
The Pew Research Center reported that, from 1996 to 2012, college enrollment increased by 240 percent among Latinos and 72 percent among blacks, compared to 12 percent for whites. While efforts to increase college enrollment are apparently succeeding, is this system helping if we are simply increasing the numbers of blacks and Latinos who won’t get a degree?
Because college has large financial and personal costs, the past few decades of broadening access without increasing graduation rates has created a college-going context that could be particularly detrimental for students from economically disadvantaged families. Expansions in college access have coincided with rising college costs and a shifting of student aid funding away from grants that don’t have to be repaid to loans that can’t even be discharged in a bankruptcy. Essentially, students who do not obtain a degree still walk away with the burden of college debt. The most recent numbers from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found undergraduate borrowers who dropped out over a decade ago had incurred a median debt of $7,000 in loans before leaving college. Given the steep increase in college costs, it is likely that today’s student borrowers who drop out are leaving with significantly more debt.
Expanding access to student debt without also increasing the likelihood that students will graduate means not only is college more of a financial risk, but increasing numbers of low-income students are exposed to that risk. Because of the strong correlation between race and ethnicity and income, the likelihood of dropping out is not spread evenly across all racial and ethnic groups, as the percentages of students earning a bachelor’s degree show.
For black and Latino students in particular, there is one important thing to add to the list of factors to consider in the college decision: How many students of their racial or ethnic group has their potential college graduated in the recent past?
Using overall graduation rates can be misleading. For example, based on the six-year graduation rate of five cohorts of freshmen who enrolled from 2004 to 2008, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities had an overall graduation rate of 73 percent. But that dropped to 65 percent for Latino students and an even lower 52 percent for black students. Concordia University Wisconsin had an overall graduation rate of 59 percent that dropped to 31 percent for Latino students and, again, an even lower 20 percent for black students.
The pendulum has swung too far. The current narrative that pushes all students toward a bachelor’s degree has resulted in mechanical advising that is not in the best interests of many students. The alternative advising model asks counselors to be both encouraging and discouraging -- encourage all students to develop postsecondary education plans and discourage aspects of plans that are implausible and imprudent. That means going beyond merely providing application support and engaging in discussions about the costs and benefits of college, and how various certifications and degrees fit into a spectrum of occupational trajectories.
More immediately, students and their families can be armed with vital pieces of information that will enable them to make better decisions about which college or university they should choose to take on the student debt they are about to accrue. Comparing institutions based on their graduation rates is rarely on the list of things that students do when deciding where to apply and which admission offer to accept. But as students and parents are armed with more information, it increasingly will be.
For their part, universities would do well to embrace the understanding that retention is as or even more important than recruitment. A high retention rate is itself a competitive recruitment tool, and an increasingly important success metric that determines government funding. For administrators eyeing the bottom line, it is more cost-effective to retain those already enrolled than invest in the replacement of those who have dropped out. One examination of the fiscal benefits of student retention found that retention initiatives are estimated to be three to five times more cost-effective than recruitment initiatives. One example found that at the University of St. Louis, each 1 percent increase in the first-year retention rate generated approximately $500,000 in revenue by the time those students graduated.
Graduation rates aren’t the only aspect of college that matters, but it is one tangible number that prospective students can use to guide their decisions. Admitted freshmen should enroll at the college with the highest graduation rate for their racial or ethnic groups. And if all of the institutions to which they have been admitted have low graduation rates for their racial or ethnic groups, we should expect them to think twice about the amount of debt they will need to incur.
As the costs and benefits of getting a college degree continue to rise, so do the stakes associated with making the decision to enroll in college and the decision about which college to attend. These two decisions are intimately intertwined -- students can no longer be encouraged to enroll at any college and at any cost just for the sake of being counted among the college-going population. And colleges, for the long term, can little afford not to help them succeed -- and graduate -- once they get there.
Micere Keels is an associate professor in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago. She is a faculty affiliate of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and member of the Committee on Education.
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